Global Mesothelioma Cases Nearly Double Over 30 Years

Research & Clinical Trials

The number of people in the world diagnosed annually with mesothelioma cancer has almost doubled in the last 30 years, accentuating the need for more effective and better coordinated efforts to end this preventable, global health problem.

Almost 35,000 people were diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2019, compared to an estimated 19,000 in 1990, according to a study by the Clinical Research Center at Shandong University, Jinan, China.

Critical Reviews in Oncology/Hematology published the study in September. It is believed to be the most comprehensive and recent evaluation of the annual incidence and mortality rate for mesothelioma on a global scale.

Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer without a cure. It is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that was once used ubiquitously worldwide. The median overall survival after a mesothelioma diagnosis is about nine to 12 months.

“There has been no study analyzing the latest mesothelioma burden and trends until now,” study authors wrote. “The aim of this study was to use data to determine the global, regional and national burdens of mesothelioma across 204 countries and territories.”

Mesothelioma Awareness Needed

Researchers intended the study to bring increased attention to the cancer and to help formulate specific strategies to improve policy decisions and resource allocation in various parts of the world.

Although the incidence and death rates from mesothelioma almost doubled during the study period, the annual rate of incident cases, deaths and disability-adjusted life years showed a slight decreasing trend. It also showed that a universal ban of asbestos would only be a starting point. 

The mining, import, use and sale of asbestos has been banned in 62 countries, and its use regulated tightly in 20 more, but the diagnosis of mesothelioma continues to be a major problem. 

One reason mesothelioma remains so ominous is its lengthy latency period – 20 to 60 years between asbestos exposure and diagnosis. There also is legacy asbestos in older structures and the lack of a cohesive strategy to stop it from causing new cases.

Governmental Action Is Key

The study pointed to three significant challenges governments must address in order to reduce the rate of mesothelioma incidence: 

Legacy Asbestos: Governments must remediate asbestos in existing buildings that were constructed or renovated before asbestos bans. 

Disposal: They must better resolve asbestos disposal issues and impacts to the environment. 

Soil Contamination: Governments also need to develop methods to successfully recover soil contaminated by asbestos-containing products.

“The results of our study can be used by policymakers to allocate resources efficiently for improving the early diagnosis of mesothelioma, reducing its modifiable risk factors, and developing novel interventions and treatment strategies to reduce its fatality rate,” the authors concluded.

U.S. Falls Behind With No Asbestos Ban

The banning of asbestos began as early as 1980 in Denmark, Norway, Israel and Sweden, and has spread through various regions, but has been slow to take hold. Too many countries – more than half – still have not banned asbestos, many times because of corporate and legal pressure.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, issued an asbestos ban and a phase-out in 1989, but it was overturned two years later after manufacturers of asbestos products filed a lawsuit.

Russia, India, Thailand and Mexico are other countries that have failed to pass a ban, leaving their citizens more vulnerable today.

By 1990 – the first year of the study – the use of asbestos products in most industrialized countries had been reduced by at least 75% from the peak asbestos consumption of the 1960s. Yet researchers still found the highest rates of mesothelioma in high-income countries and the lowest rates in low-income regions.

In North America, incident cases rose from 3,073 in 1990 to 4,487 in 2019. The increase was much more dramatic in the Asia-Pacific region, which went from 796 cases to 2,102 cases. Western Europe rose from 7,732 cases to 12,080 cases. Central Asia increased from 150 cases to 211 cases.

The highest age-standardized mortality rate was in the United Kingdom, followed by Australia, the Netherlands, the European principality of Andorra and Lesotho in Southern Africa. 

In 2020, an estimated 30,870 new cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed, while 26,278 new deaths from mesothelioma occurred.

Over the 30-year span, the study found fewer cases of mesothelioma for those under age 70, and more cases in patients older than 80, a reflection of an aging population. 

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